Darlene Cavalier is the founder of SciStarter, a blog that covers science projects in which the public can take part on topics that range from human gut microbes to ants to invasive plants. Cavalier, a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader, also created a group that works with current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders to promote science education.
Q. We’re hearing a lot these days about “citizen science.” Is it taking off because there isn’t enough funded research going and non-scientists are needed to fill in gaps?
A. I suspect we’re hearing more about it because professional science associations, universities, government agencies and the media seem to be taking it more seriously than in past years.
Q. What’s an example of how citizen-produced science benefits the scientific community?
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A. Project MERCCURI is a citizen science project to compare microbes on Earth to those in space. (The study will) compare growth rates of 48 microbial samples swabbed from surfaces in buildings, which will be sent to the International Space Station. (The study also will) learn what microbes lurk in the space station (and) produce 4,000 points of data for the Earth Microbiome Map, an initiative to map microbes across the globe.
Q. What topics on your blog generate the most interest?
A. Simple, short-term, timely projects generate the most interest. Clear calls to action in response to a crisis or local event will also ignite greater interest: Use your cell phone to monitor earthquakes near you, test water quality in response to fracking near you, report dragonfly swarms.
Q. How did you go from cheerleading to an interest in science – and is there something we can learn from that?
A. Yes! I cheered, then worked at Discover magazine in business development. That's where I fell in love with science. But, deep down, I knew “real science” is for “them” (scientists and policymakers), not for me. It frustrated me and as someone responsible for setting up science outreach projects at Discover (and Disney Publishing), I felt like a fraud. I enrolled at University of Pennsylvania simply to explore if/how someone like me could connect more authentically with science. That's where I learned about citizen scientists, efforts to build mechanisms for participatory policy making, and the need to remind adults that they are entitled to shape science and science policy.